The cartography of interiority: Magic, mapmaking, and the search for Eden in the Renaissance

Date of Award




Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.)



First Committee Member

Jeffrey Shoulson - Committee Chair


This dissertation investigates a specific form of intellectual exchange in the early modern period, namely, the relationship between the craft of cartography and the study (and practice) of magic. The similar ideological underpinnings shared by both modes of inquiry create an unusual cross-section, and the published works of late sixteenth and early seventeenth century mapmakers and magicians advanced not just the theoretical output of these two respective disciplines, but also served as applicable blueprints for the endeavors of early modern explorers and navigators. In other words, we need not think of maps solely as conjectural models of previously uncharted regions, but as literal occult tools. The seventeenth century map is not just a new scientific instrument that can be used to conquer the New World; it is also a kind of crystal ball, a prophetic device imbued with a kind of magical power that an explorer need not fully understand in order to implement. As Bill Sherman has suggested in his assessment of J.B. Harley's work on cartography, "cartographical representations, like visual representations in general had a persuasive power that went far beyond their descriptive functions. It is thus inappropriate to ask of maps...whether they are true or false. It is more useful to ask about the use to which they are put; to consider maps as 'actions rather than as impassive descriptions"' (Sherman 190). I propose, then, an extension of Sherman's conclusions, that maps are not just actions but an extremely specific type of action, and that maps function as both scientific tools and the products of a magical operation, suggesting (as Piero Camporesi has pointed out) that science and magic coexist "in a syncretism where the traditions [are] distinguished with extreme difficulty" (Camporesi 47).The purpose of my dissertation, then, is to explore the connections between mapmaking and magic as a means towards grappling with the larger conjunction of early modern science and occultism. I propose that maps and magic are representative of an early modern need to create stability in a seemingly unstable world; in this context, the map operates as a kind of visual incantation, a pictorial spell that creates order where only uncertainty about the rules and limitations of the natural world previously reigned. While the celestial and terrestrial maps that were plotted and circulated during the early modern era proved to be valuable scientific tools, I do not, however, see the map functioning as a wholly successful stabilizing apparatus. Just as Agrippa, Paracelsus, and particularly Dee constructed baroque systems of occult practice that paradoxically served as impediments towards the very magical knowledge they sought to attain, so do early modern maps create a similar effect. Instead of systematizing the uncharted corners of the earth and heavens, the map instead serves to create even greater concerns about the known world than had existed before, despite cartography's undeniable contributions to the fields of exploration, navigation, and astronomy. Like the dominant magical arts of the period, the early modern map is as much a diagram of human anxiety concerning the unknowable as it is a representation of the continents, oceans, or stars. In order to demonstrate a range of the cartographic techniques involved and the different sorts of geographical spaces covered, each chapter of my dissertation focuses on a different type of mapmaking process, including---though not restricted to---alchemical maps of the spirit, terrestrial maps and globes, and astronomical maps, globes, and charts.


Literature, English

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